Muslims in overdrive as Sarajevo prepares to vote

Bosnia elections: Izetbegovic's hardline ruling party set to win again
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Someone in the Transport Department ordered the name of the ruling Muslim party to be marked along the trunk route to Sarajevo in white paint. The letters SDA appear with striking regularity and official neatness on the tarmac on both sides of the road north from Mostar to Sarajevo.

At first I did not believe they could be the initials of a party. I thought they might stand for "Sarajevo - direct access", to celebrate the opening of the city, which was under siege for three and a half years.

But no. Vote SDA is what it means. It was as if a senior figure in the British Department of Transport had marked "Vote Conservative" on the carriageway all the way along the M1.

Sarajevans were also mystified by the appearance of the letters a week ago. "I thought the city traffic authorities had introduced some new sign," said Bakir Arnautovic, an electrician. "It was only when I saw one of those SDA signs on the side of the road that I made the connection. When I did, I realised there is no hope," he joked. "They did a phenomenal job - to cover all the road from Mostar to Sarajevo in one night".

In the centre of Sarajevo the SDA - Stranka Demokratske Akcije, or Party of Democratic Action - has posters everywhere, the initials in a strangely oppressive green, with a grey crescent moon. They are regularly put over other posters.

Mr Arnautovic will vote in next month's poll, with reservations. "These elections are happening too soon," he said. "I like Haris Silajdzic [the former Bosnian Prime Minister and main candidate for the Muslim seat on the three-man presidency after President Alija Izetbegovic].

"I don't know what is hidden behind those leaders. I couldn't follow their work in the economy. That is why it is too soon for these elections."

The sophisticated inhabitants of Sarajevo are not typical of Bosnian voters. Tens of thousands of refugees swarmed into the city during the war and are expected to ensure Mr Izetbegovic's hardline SDA wins again, as it did in 1991. Mr Silajdzic's party is likely to come a close second. After the siege, from April 1992 to November 1995, native Sarajevans have been exposed to more Western-style media than most Bosnians.

But the parties do not engage in fierce debate on television or at the hustings. "It's just a list of candidates. I have to work until about 10 at night, so there's not much opportunity to follow it on TV and radio," said Mr Arnautovic.

"Most leaders of the big parties have promised to lead us into Europe. In fact, they'll only lead us carrying a swag-bag into Europe."

Some voters asked what most concerned British voters in an election and I said it was probably the economy and personal prosperity. "I still don't know who I'll vote for," said Neven Cica, a paramedic. "I didn't recognise any party which showed us they had any economic programme which would provide for us a normal life tomorrow. I hope in the next 20 days I will read somewhere or see someone who will present a programme. At the moment I like the Stranka Privrednog Prosperita [Party of Economic Prosperity]."

Fifty-five parties are taking part. But the ruling parties - the SDA for the Bosnian Muslims, the HDZ for the Croats and the SDS for the Serbs - are expected to carry the day. The results are seen as less important than the legality of the elections and the way they are carried out.

The Dayton peace deal enshrines the right of people to cross into areas from which they were forced to flee from, in order to vote. In fact, the electoral machinery reinforces the division of Bosnia into two separate "entities". In practice, people who cross the border to vote may waste their votes. "They are only puppets who are used for the campaign," said Mr Cica. "Most refugees have no clue how they will vote and how it will end finally".

The Organisation for Security and Co-operation in Europe, which is supervising the elections, is bringing in 1,200 monitors. They appeared to be on the verge of cancelling the local elections, represented by one of the five different coloured ballot papers voters will face on 14 September. But under US pressure the provisional election commission delayed making a decision until this week, by which time it will be probably too late to cancel.